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Shadow Over ‘Star Wars’

The results of scientific experiments can only be as valid as the accuracy of the instruments used to measure them. This elemental truth appears not to have been taken very seriously by researchers in one of the major areas of the “Star Wars” program: the quest for an X-ray laser capable of zapping attacking Soviet missiles.

As staff writer Robert Scheer reported in The Times on Tuesday, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory is proceeding with plans for a $30-million test of a nuclear-driven X-ray laser despite warnings by other government scientists that a key measuring device is faulty and inaccurate.

The experiments involve exploding nuclear devices underground and converting the energy that the explosions release into a powerful X-ray laser beam. As a strategic defense weapon, a nuclear-pumped laser would have to be deployed in space because X-rays cannot easily penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere. For the same reason, the laser would have to catch rising enemy missiles after they had entered space.

Assuming that such a device can be built, there are practical objections. As generally perceived, a fleet of nuclear-armed laser devices would have to stand guard in permanent Earth orbit. Since the nuclear pump is really a bomb, we aren’t sanguine at the prospect of dozens or hundreds of these bombs--some American, some Russian--whizzing around overhead. Critics also note that nuclear-pumped lasers would probably blow up other parts of a defense system that were anywhere near them. And nobody has explained why Livermore is spending more than $100 million a year on nuclear X-ray laser research when the President says that the defense shield would be non-nuclear.

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Those problems all lie in the future. The immediate problem is that project managers at Livermore are claiming dramatic success in underground tests while scientists at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory warn that the tests may not be valid because the device used to measure the laser beam’s intensity had a serious design flaw. An internal review by other scientists at Livermore agrees with the Los Alamos assessment of the test results.

Rather than accept the six-months-to-a-year delay that waiting for a new mechanism would involve, the program managers at Livermore are going ahead with plans for a new test. Critics charge that political considerations were a major factor in the decision.

Whatever the motive, it is self-evident that millions of taxpayer dollars should not be thrown away in a test that cannot be accurately and reliably calibrated. The Administration should put further tests on hold until the measuring-equipment problem is solved.


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